When Martin Olive, executive director at the Vapor Room, set out to design his dispensary’s newest location, he wanted the 900 square foot space to feel open in every sense of the word. “Vapor Room has always felt like a community space and we wanted to extend that concept to the new space,” he said. “Our previous locations in San Francisco included a ‘70s themed basement lounge, which we then refined in 2009 with a more apothecary/French café experience. With this new location we strove to once again stay ahead of the curve of cannabis retail experiences.”
Equal parts Scandinavian furniture boutique and Bay Area loft, Vapor Room feels light, spartan, and modern. But never cold. Scandinavian design can be all these things, but when done thoughtfully it can strike a perfect balance with great textures such as light woods, metals, and concrete that exude warmth and the organic, natural world. “It all seems appropriate given the industry we are in,” said Olive.
It was important to Olive that once a customer entered the space, they could forget the bustling, and sometimes dirty, metropolis. He wanted the experience to be quiet, clean, and bright, offering a respite from the usual grit and grime of San Francisco’s SOMA District. Keeping in mind the ever-evolving landscape of cannabis retail, Olive hoped that by creating a “familiar” space it would disarm any preconceived notions about the dispensary retail experience. The lobby was meant invoke the atmosphere of bars and cafés, creating a welcoming and comfortable space to sit, converse, and learn about products. There’s a certain softness and at-home feeling which includes benches outfitted with hand stitched vegan leather cushions and pillows, punctuated with small, moveable cocktail style tables.
“I think we achieved what we had set out to do,” Olive said. “It’s an all-encompassing space that portrays forward thinking, wellness, education, and quality, without taking itself too seriously.”
But there were obstacles and hiccups along the way.
For one, the Vapor Room nearly lost its grandfathered onsite consumption permit when the health department decided to revamp its entire permitting process for onsite consumption. Olive rallied Vapor Room supporters and activists and lobbied City Hall. He literally walked a city employee through City Hall and out the door after a particularly long Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss why it was necessary to allow the dispensary to retain the permit after losing its previous brick and mortar location in 2012. “Thankfully, we were granted our onsite consumption and our lounge is open—although not currently because of the pandemic,” said Olive.
The next obstacle came during construction. Originally, Olive had hoped to pull up the preexisting floors to expose and seal the underlying concrete, but it proved too cost prohibitive due to the sub-floor. After much deliberation, Olive chose a floor that was traffic proof, easy to clean, and visually complementary to the lighter woods used in the shop’s displays. “The idea to run the planks at a diagonal felt non-traditional and fun,” he added.
Next, Olive turned his focus to lighting, selecting fixtures from Schoolhouse and Rejuvenation that complemented the shop’s the warm wood tones. His goal was to splash the overall design with modern utilitarian sophistication and a little nod to art deco. “All of the selections are brass and frosted glass,” he said. “We then used brass as a through-line and tried to use it in all hardware throughout.”
Since Vapor Room is a ground floor retail shop in a historic building, the space was constructed with several large support posts, however they were hidden in drywall. When Olive took over the unit, he removed the cladding to expose the beautiful, poured concrete pillars which he then used as posts for lighting. “We banded them in brass near the tops and created custom swing arm style lights that accentuate the height [of the ceiling] and create a canopy,” Olive said.
The company also spent significant time visualizing and designing its display cases. It was important to strike a balance between beauty, display, and functionality. Designers created 3D models of various cases and configurations before landing on large glass displays with a pull-out system for easy access of the products within. Olive reasoned that because there is a lot of variation among different products such as size, shape, and inventory levels that, due to the overall architecture of the space, using large open shelves would be a good way unify everything.
“Our display merchandising is regularly updated and evolving to accommodate those variations,” he said. “It keeps it fun for us as well, to find new boxes and trays and play with the layout every few days. When new customers come in, we explain that we have a unique boutique bodega experience here and that they can feel free to browse the products on the shelves and interact with them at their leisure. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff is here to help them in a relaxed, conversational manner.”
But the key to making everything blend seamlessly was the color palette. The white walls and light colors feel fresh, inviting, and modishly relaxed, giving an overall feeling of optimism and health. Olive strove to keep the space green and natural, letting organic materials do most of the work. This extends all the way to the restrooms, of which Olive is proud.
“We wanted to bring in some levity which manifested in a pink penny round tiled bathroom with cannabis leaves wallpaper head to toe,” he said.
The building itself is historic Greek revival through the beaux arts lens of post 1906 earthquake San Francisco. The exterior of the shop is a nod to the city’s historic psychedelia: the signage is gold lettering in a pink puffy cloud-like vapor. The unique Vapor Room logo resembles the ℞ medical prescription symbol, a nod to cannabis’s medicinal qualities “We’ve gone through a couple of iterations of the logo having landed recently on a sophisticated and clean version of our word mark,” Olive said.
Olive didn’t want to use digital menus because he wanted an analog vibe for the shop. Instead, custom cards are displayed in front of each product depicting simple shape and color iconography to signify sativa, indica, hybrid, and CBD products. They indicate the brand, product, weight, and price and include a brief description of psychoactive effects. “As a customer glances at our shelves, they can quickly and easily find the specific products they’re looking for,” said Olive.
As a mom-and-pop pot shop with long-established San Francisco roots, Vapor Room counts on word-of-mouth marketing and takes an organic, familiar approach to customer engagement through social media. However, the downside to being an independent shop is having a limited marketing budget and a limited presence in the usual print and online resources most dispensaries use. Though Vapor Room has hosted a couple of art shows, private tastings, and plans to have a violinist play when the lounge reopens.
“We choose instead to advertise in media outlets that aren’t utilized by other dispensaries,” Olive said. “Working with a small marketing budget requires us to remain lean; make smart, strategic ad buys; and utilize clean, simple graphic design that focuses on witty, sassy, humorous copy. Our bright color palette, ‘punny’ copy, and bold design are recognizable, easily read, and consistent in order to create a brand marketing strategy that brings a smile to the viewers face.”
Olive has been operating one iteration or another of the Vapor Room since 2004 and has learned a thing or two about what the modern cannabis consumer wants—even when they don’t know what they want. He also invests in a friendly and smart staff that “gets it.” When consumers shop at Vapor Room, they’re greeted sincerely, treated with respect, and properly educated.
“Our ethos is to treat every customer as a therapeutic user, even if they’re viewing it through ‘recreational’ eyes,” Olive said. “So, we focus on relief, relaxation, and recovery and go from there.”